The Devil in a Little Green Bottle: A History of Absinthe

T. Bianco, Le Peril Vert

Le Peril Vert depicts absinthe ravaging the French population. The artist, T. Bianco, was a well-known satirical illustrator.

After the Lanfray murders absinthe consumption became a serious political issue, as people throughout Europe—reading lurid headlines about the “absinthe murder”—demanded action. Absinthe went on trial in the court of public opinion, facing a newly hostile citizenry, its longtime enemies in the temperance movements, and a bevy of respected medical authorities. Behind the scenes wealthy wine producers supported a ban in an attempt to eliminate an increasingly popular competitor, even though absinthe never accounted for more than 3% of the alcoholic beverages consumed in France. But when disease infected French vineyards in the 1880s, the resulting wine shortage helped popularize absinthe among the money-conscious working class. When the wine crisis ended, many working-class drinkers stuck with the green beverage, increasingly made with cheaper industrial alcohol produced from beets or grain. Yet wine still accounted for 72% of all alcohol consumed. More than actual competition, it was the appearance of a trend that provoked wine makers to move against absinthe. Meanwhile, Magnan’s distinction between alcoholism and absinthism allowed wine to escape any blame for the state of the national health.

In defense of the Green Fairy stood a collection of self-proclaimed decadents of the absinthe subculture (not always a politically active lot), and a few sympathetic politicians scattered throughout Europe. The outcome was never in doubt.